The 7 Hardest Customer Service Scenarios Without Easy Answers

Most training programs prepare employees for the tricky scenarios — angry customers, customers asking for favors, etc. But what about the truly difficult situations?

These situations are as diverse as the people at the other end of the line. How to react when a customer crosses the line with racism, sexism, or plain out aggression? Or what when the customer is actually right, and your policy is wrong?

The toughest customer service scenarios don’t have easy answers — creating stress and uncertainty. Having a fallback plan for those makes you more confident and reliable. Here are the 7 toughest customer service scenarios to prepare for.

1
When a customer displays racism

Diversity is a great thing for any company. Differing opinions and cultural backgrounds are something to cherish for their learning effects. But embracing diversity also means properly treating the less enlightened among us — the paradox of tolerance.

map illustrating severity of racism throughout the globe
Racism is a global issue, which is why it deserves more differentiation than this map can deliver.

You’re more or less likely to encounter racism depending on where you’re operating. Racism can be straightforward, but as Dennis Hong showed, it can also hide behind ambiguous statements —sometimes even behind code.

Racism ranges on a spectrum from ambiguous remarks to obviously racist. An ambiguous remark is best ignored, because you don't want to risk falsely accusing the customer.

But when more obvious, you should respond. As with sexism — discussed below — the goal in customer service can’t be to educate the other side. Nor it to shame him — you’ll lose a customer and reinforce a stubborn person's position. Rather, your goal is to stop the negative behavior in its tracks so that the service delivery can continue with the dignity of both sides intact.

Everyday racism has to be tackled by ordinary people.

Adele Horin, Sydney Morning Herald

I agree with fastcoexist’s Rich Mintz who says that companies should not be afraid to take a stance. Sure, in support, taking a stance means opening the gates for argument. Still you should never bow to racism, sexism, homophobia or any other form of discrimination.

As Jens Korff wrote in a great piece on how to deal with racism, one should do so staying calm and reacting against the issue, not the person. It’s key not to go down to their level. Here are the different forms of racism you might encounter.

Prejudiced mindset.
"You look like you’ll have no trouble calculating a price for me!" Also "positive" discriminatory remarks, like this one often targeted towards Asians, can be extremely annoying. First ignore. If it persists, ask what the customer means, helping her realize that she's being racist. If it still persists, point out that these are prejudiced views.

Jokingly racist.
"I can never tell you guys apart", "Don’t eat my dog", "Ni hao!"
If the remark is unambiguous, start playing dumb and ask how the sentence was meant.This way you indicate that you disapprove without triggering a defensive reaction. In more extreme cases, say that you'll gladly help the customer, but that you can only do so on the basis of mutual respect.
If it persists, say that you can only continue helping if the behavior stops. If it doesn't, stop conversation and report the issue to your manager.

Aggressive racist.
"I’d like to be assisted by someone who’s white, please."
I agree with fastcoexist’s Rich Mintz who says that companies should not be afraid to take a stance. You should never bow to racism or any other form of discrimination, which means never complying with racist demands.
Indicate that the customer's language is harmful and that you can't accept it regardless of who it's directed at. You will help if you're treated with the necessary respect. If possible, refer to your company's general policy on this matter. This clarifies that the customer is behaving against social norms instead of just your personal preferences. If it still persists, stop the conversation and report the issue to your manager.

2
When a customer displays sexism

Sexism shares much of racism's DNA. Both are forms of discrimination on the basis of group affiliation.

Especially among Western cultures, racism is strongly and legislatively condemned. Sexism, however, is often whitewashed as a form of conservatism and chivalry, shrugged off as locker room talk, or ignored entirely as in Uber’s scandal case.

In customer service, it starts with a with a breach of professional distance, like a supposedly friendly “sweetheart” or kiss emoji. But it can easily move to the level of more obvious condescending remarks. In extreme cases a customer might ask a female agent to forward him to a male colleague whose name he looked up on your site.

The tentative social condemnation of sexism has another negative impact: It makes sexism harder to battle, with "you’re being hysterical” or “I’m just being nice” as typical evasive responses. See Jennifer Dziura’s tactics to counter these and other typical phrases.

Here are the various types of sexism you might encounter in service.

Prejudiced mindset.
"Maybe I should discuss this with one of your male colleagues?"
Ignore a single remark if more ambiguous than above one. A pattern of such remarks should definitely make you act. Question the meaning behind the remark(s) to clarify the sexist prejudices.

Jokingly sexist.
"That didn’t fix my issue but your profile picture makes up for that ;)"
"I know this stuff’s complicated, sweetheart!"
React on unprofessional niceties and objectification with a display of cool professionalism. It indicates that you disapprove without triggering a defensive reaction. Here it also works to 'act unsuspecting' and inquire into the meaning behind the words.

You can also answer a ‘joke’ in kind while playfully noting how you think the remark was below your level: Try “You didn’t just say that” or “Welcome back in high school”, then directly turn back to the actual topic.

Aggressive sexist.
"Let a man handle that."
Just like with racism – never tolerate this. Only continue the service if the necessary respect is there. Say that you are gladly trying to help the customer but won’t accept sexist remarks, whether directed at you or anyone else. Send a warning that you will end the conversation if this doesn’t stop. Also refer to your company’s policy to show the person that this isn’t about your personal opinion. If necessary, end the conversation.

For most racist and sexist scenarios, a subtle display of your discontent will be enough to shock the customer into decent behavior. So as soon as the point has come across, continue with warmness.

3
When a customer hits on you

It happens, it really does. For no apparent reason customers want to meet up with you in person. They talk business first, then switch the subject with an innocent question like “so, where’s your office located?”. Sharing the info inevitably triggers a nonchalant “oh, I happen to drive up next weekend. Would you like to grab a coffee?”

gif of austin powers

Most flirting customers are trolls testing their game or fooling around. I’ll get to trolls later on. But if the person is not your obvious clown, that’s a real problem. Because a sincere charmer might happen to be a sincere customer as well.

As recent research showed, it’s a matter of gender whether the situation becomes awkward. Men tend to overperceive signals of interest from women, male agents should therefore be careful uttering suspicions that their female customer is flirting. Female agents should be mindful of their choice of words when talking to a male customer, they might come across as flirting although they’re not.

Best practices for different stages of severity:

  • Step 1: Pouch the flattery, act like you didn’t notice it and continue with support.
  • Step 2: Indicate that you know what’s going on by suggesting to focus on business.
  • Step 3: Point to your own and the customer’s professionalism and politely ask him to focus on topics related to your service and products.
  • Step 4: Say that you can really only help with business related matters. Otherwise, he'll have to look somewhere else. If the flattery turns into stalking behavior, cut the conversation.

Unless you're in for a date, of course.

4
When your customer is right and your policy is wrong

Sometimes a single irregular customer can put a part of your service policy into question. That’s a great if you’re in a position to adjust it. If employees are taught to think for themselves, get a framework of rules as well as the authority to bend the rules when necessary, then a customer who teaches you something new is a stroke of luck.

If you don’t have the power to change things, though, there are still some fixes you can apply.

Best practices for different stages of severity:

  • Step 1: Use the because justification and explain why the policy is as it is. Even if it stands in the way of the customer’s goal, you will create an understanding and soften their disappointment.
  • Step 2: Explain that you agree with the customer but can’t change things yourself. Show compassion. If this doesn’t satisfy the customer, either escalate the case to a higher level or inform about how to proceed to your superior.
  • Step 3: Make clear that you’re willing to look for an alternative. Either ask what you could do for the customer instead or offer something right away. For example, if the policy is to not do refunds, you could still offer a couple wildcards for free product use if you have that authority.

5
When a customer shouldn’t be using a computer

Let’s face it: certain customers wear down support with their lack of skills and understanding. They keep returning with the exact same issue over and over in Groundhog Day fashion.

Obviously you can’t tell a customer that your product requires a basic level of understanding, even if that’s true. A skillful service rep can simplify matters as much as is necessary to make customer reach their goals.

Best practices for different stages of severity:

  • Step 1: Provide screenshots and tutorials. Point the customer to the crucial areas. If chat and email don’t cut it, turn to the phone, which allows for more detailed explanations.
  • Step 2: Adopt the mindset of a total beginner and rephrase your explanation without technical jargon. Use the ELI5 technique (“Explain it like I’m five years old”) and guide the user through your fix in little, comprehensible steps without using any jargon.
  • Step 3: If your product allows for it, ask the customer for permission to log into their account and do the changes for them.
  • Step 4: If the customer’s lack of understanding makes you gnaw away at your desk, vent some steam by getting vocal outside the conversation, e.g. when you’re chatting. One can only take so much, but respect has to persist and show at any point of the customer conversation. You can of course hint the customers at hiring a professional to run the service for them.

6
When a customer is trolling

A troll isn’t just someone refusing to play by the rules. It’s someone with an urge to create discomfort, to feast on your frustration. Psychological research made a solid link between trolls and prototypical sadists.

They are liberal in what they do and conservative in what they construe as acceptable behavior from others. You, the troll says, are not worthy of my understanding; I, therefore, will do everything I can to confound you.

Mattathias Schwartz, NYT Magazine

You’ll recognize trolls by their destructive form of communication. This shows in interrupting, blaming, exaggerating, off topic talk or harsh insults. Don’t award a troll with much patience. Unlike a racist or sexist, who might simply be oblivious to their vices, a troll will never turn into a customer.

Best practices for different stages of severity:

  • Step 1: Play it cool: “I’m glad to help you if you’re being sincere. Do you have an actual question? If no I’ll end this conversation now.”
  • Step 2: Take the fun out of trolling by ignoring the person.
  • Step 3: Set up a macro to not waste any time on the troll: “You are being unreasonable, because of this I will now put your account on silent. We will not be notified of your messages anymore from this point on. Have a nice day.”

7
When your customer is aggressive

Anger can have many reasons.Be it through a badly desired but denied discount or simply because the customer just ruined his shirt with coffee. In customer service it often results from an experienced lack of fair treatment.

image of angry bird

According to the recalibrational theory, the expressions of anger are meant to put the person into a better bargaining situation. But if what they want is simply impossible, you can’t bargain or fix the situation. You can only treat the anger itself.

Angry customers seem like the more common type compared to the ones above. Actually though, they might be even more common than you think: Not even 4% of your angry customers will even tell you how they feel, but an alarming 91% of those that remain silent will never come back to you. Reason enough to be alert for any sign of anger, and deal with the angry but potentially valuable customer.

There are two main types of anger I’d distinguish in the service context. The first kind is a customer aggressive towards the company or its representative. If the anger is directed at you personally with no connection to an issue, there’s little you can do to fix the situation. At the latest when it escalates to personal threats you should pull the plug.

The second kind is a customer angry at the issue, the type you’ll normally get. It can still involve you individually, as a professional who didn’t do good work, creating an issue. Also, customers often vent their anger about an issue through personal assaults. It can be hard to tell what kind of anger you’re dealing with. That’s why you need to advance step by step and eliminate the anger before you take up with the issue.

Best practices for different stages of severity:

  • Step 1: Approach with a calm and compassionate mind. Convey that you understand the customer’s situation.
  • Step 2: Instead, cool down the situation through questioning. Don’t judge and don’t lecture on why the anger is unfounded. Ask to explain the situation in detail and follow-up with more questions to lead the customer back to a more rational mind. This also shows how you’re taking him seriously.
  • Step 3: Apologize for the situation but don’t take unfounded blame: “I’m sorry about the fact that your laptop stopped working. I can understand that you must be upset.”
  • The because justification.